I have been feeling a bit run down lately, which I attributed first to the typical murky New England spring weather and secondly to the end-of-semester rush, or some combination thereof. Then I realized it wasn’t just fatigue but also a certain sadness, brought on by the fact that I have been lecturing about assassinations all week. Teaching takes its toll! By coincidence, I was covering eras of extreme violence in two of my courses: a survey of the Renaissance and the Reformation and an introduction to European history. In the former, we’re in the midst of the religious wars of the second half of the sixteenth century, while in the latter we’re in the later nineteenth-century Belle Époque, which wasn’t all that belle if you ask me. So in just the last week, I’ve referenced the assassinations of William I of Orange, leader of the Protestant opposition in the Dutch Revolt against Spain (1584), the French kings Henri III (1589) and Henri IV (1610), as well as (jumping forward three centuries) Tsar Alexander II of Russia (1881), U.S. President James Garfield (1881), President Carnot of France (1894), Prime Minister Cánovas del Castillo of Spain (1897), Elisabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary (1898), King Umberto I of Italy (1900) and President William McKinley of the United States (1901). And then I woke up this morning to realize that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on this day in 1865–the icing on the cake.
A pretty somber week indeed, but also an opportunity to explore the comparative natures of early modern and modern assassinations. I know the earlier era so much better, so it is easier for me to comprehend the religious environment that created the motivations and rationales for violent acts. This was a civil holy war between Christianity, and both sides were absolutely certain of the rightness and urgency of their cause. Nevertheless, in an age of divine-right rule, these assassinations were still shocking, particularly that of William of Orange, the first leader to be killed by a handgun.
An 18th century image of William of Silent’s assassination, and variant covers of Lisa Jardine’s 2005 book: The Awful End of Prince William the Silent. The First Assassination of a Head of State with a Handgun. German broadside illustration of the assassination of King Henri IV in 1610, British Museum.
As alarming as these murders were and are, it is the modern assassinations that I find even more chilling; even though they were targeting single individuals, they were seldom personal but rather acts of public relations–the propaganda of the deed. Their frequency is equally chilling: in the last decade of the nineteenth century alone the leaders of nearly every western European nation were struck down, along with poor Empress Elisabeth (“Sisi”) of Austria, stabbed in the chest with a nail file while she was walking down a Geneva promenade accompanied only by her maid. Clearly no on was safe, and that was the central message that “organized” anarchism meant to convey.
Aroused! Puck Magazine illustration with lady law and order preparing to slay the anarchist snake and President Carnot’s body lying in state, 1894; the front page of the San Francisco Call for September 11, 1898, reporting the assassination of Empress Elizabeth, both Library of Congress.